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Spirituality and America’s Mental Health Crisis

(Talk given @ St. Thomas the Apostle Parish on 2/7/17 by Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D. as part of a Lenten Series)


I’d like to begin tonight’s discussion with a story from the Gospel According to Mark.

But, before I do that, allow me to step back for a moment and paint just a brief picture of what the world was like at the time of Mark’s writing.

Some 20-30 years after the death of Jesus, the world was experienced by most people as being dark and brutal and violent – unbelievably violent.

It was a world filled with massive poverty and untold ruthlessness.

The Roman Empire reigned supreme. Just a few years earlier, Roman soldiers under the leadership of Titus thoroughly decimated the countryside of Israel beginning at the very top and pillaging and plundering their way to the great city of Jerusalem, which they burned to the ground. In 70 A.D., this same Roman army utterly destroyed the great Temple of Jerusalem, the sacred center of Jewish worship.

Our own recent experience of 9/11 here in America can give us some hint at least of the horror and devastation this caused.


Caesar, the Roman Emperor, was worshiped as a god. “Lord of the Universe,” “Mighty God,” “Prince of Peace,” are just a sampling of the devotion given him.

Any disapproval, any hint of causing trouble of any kind was crushed – viciously crushed.

And so, to most religious people at that time, demonic forces had the upper hand. Satan was seen as the ultimate ruler of the world.

But then … something extraordinary, something totally unexpected happened.

In the midst of all this negativity and pessimism, a book called a “gospel” was written – and with it a whole new literary genre came into being. Nothing like it had ever been written before.

This “gospel,” as it was called, was a book that was in stark contrast to the mood of the times.

It was a book that even had the audacity to announce “good news of great joy!”

Why that title?

Because this book, this “gospel,” was announcing that a new beginning, a radical breakthrough had taken place. It was insisting that there was now present the possibility of liberation, of freedom from all this darkness, all this fear, all this oppression, all this brutality.

But, what was even more amazing about this declaration of Good News was that it centered around a poor, itinerant carpenter from a small, no-where village called Nazareth.

The writer of this radically revolutionary story was a man named Mark – a man about whom we don’t know a lot, but what we do know is that he was courageous enough to announce as boldly as he could this astounding message:

Yes, Satan is powerful, but this man Jesus is even more powerful.

Yes, the world is filled with demonic forces, but this man Jesus has triumphed over them.

Yes, a darkness does cover the world, but this man Jesus has brought the possibility of experiencing a whole new way of living, a whole new way of seeing, a whole new way of being.

And, as Mark in his gospel proclaimed it, the “good news,” then, for all the people suffering so horribly was this:

Caesar is not the Lord of the universe like he claims; Jesus is. Caesar is not the all-powerful one as he insists; Jesus is. Caesar is not the Prince of Peace, or the Mighty God as everyone believed at that time; Jesus is.

How does Mark prove this radical insistence? What tells him that this man Jesus is more powerful? What compels him to make such radical, revolutionary, and world-shattering claims?

From the very beginning of his gospel, Mark demonstrates Jesus’ supreme power by the “mighty deeds,” the miracles he performs.

These miracles, in fact, were so astounding that the people at that time who witnessed them proclaimed again and again: “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

So, here’s why Mark made these revolutionary claims about Jesus:

A leper is cleansed. A man with a withered hand, a woman with a hemorrhage, a “little child” who was deemed dead are all healed and given a whole new experience of life.

And the people witnessing these miracles again proclaimed: “We’ve never seen anything like this!”

Caesar couldn’t do that!

Then Jesus demonstrates his power, not only over people’s bodies, but over nature itself.

For example, when Jesus is in a boat with some of his followers, “a violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up …. They woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ …. (Jesus) stood up in the boat and said to the wind, ‘Quiet! Be still.’ The wind ceased and there was a great calm. The people who witnessed all of this were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who is this whom even wind and sea obey?’”  

Again, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Caesar couldn’t do this either!

But then one of the most remarkable of all miracle stories takes place. It’s exceptional because it concerns not only the healing of a person’s body, or even the undoing of the laws of nature as in the wind and the sea, but the healing of the inner workings of a person’s mind.

It’s the story of what is called the “healing of the Gerasene Demoniac,” or what one translation refers to as “The Madman.”

The story, according to this translation found in The Bible In Contemporary Language: The Message, goes as follows:     

“They arrived on the other side of the sea in the country of the Gerasenes. As Jesus got out of the boat, a madman from the cemetery came up to him. He lived there among the tombs, and graves. No one could restrain him – he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. He had been tied up many times with chains and ropes, but he broke the chains, snapped the ropes. No one was strong enough to tame him. Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones. When he saw Jesus a long way off, he ran and bowed down in worship before him – then bellowed in protest, ‘What business do you have, Jesus, Son of the High God, messing with me?’  Jesus quietly asked him, ‘Tell me your name.’ He replied, ‘My name is Mob. I’m a rioting mob.’”

In today’s world of psychology, “Mob” would most likely refer to Multiple Personality Disorder or, as it’s now more properly referred to, Dissociative Identity Disorder.


We will come back to how this story turns out a later point.

I begin this discussion of mental health with these stories of the darkness that penetrated life at the time in which this gospel was written, especially that of the Demoniac, or Madman, because, taken together, they contain a very accurate description of what millions of people to this very day experience inside their brain.

These stories also point out in a very dramatic fashion how intractable this condition that we call “mental illness” has always been, and how enormously difficult it has been to treat – even up until our present day.

It was so difficult to treat in the time of Jesus, for example, it took a miracle!

Today, for us, because of the breakthrough research that took place only a few years ago, we are now able – for the first time in all of human history – to see inside the brain while it is working!!!

What that then enabled us in our present time to do is discover – again, for the first time ever! – what parts of the brain are responsible for what functions; what parts of the brain are deficient; what parts of the brain cause addiction, what parts of the brain are needed to be assisted to relieve the torture of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar and on and on.

Also, as a consequence, for the first time ever in all of human history we were now able to develop medications that can treat many of these malfunctions. And for the first time ever, we now know so much more about genetics – and the role it plays in all of these disorders.

At the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark, however, people didn’t have a clue about any of this. Hence, the belief in the existence of demons that had attacked a person – probably caused by some great sin this person had committed and was thereby being punished.

Note: In both of these examples, the finger is pointed at the person suffering from this great malady. In other words, it was all their fault! They deserved what they got!

Tragically, some 2000 years later, many still believe this and treat the victims of mental illness in the same way.

The reality is that it’s taken an enormous amount of time and effort and research and trial/error to get to where we presently are.

And we know it’s only the beginning. So much more needs to be done!!


To demonstrate the kind of progress that has been made, especially in the past 30-40 years, let’s take the case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – a condition we hear a lot about these days, and a condition about which we have developed a relatively new understanding.

The following discussion is based primarily on the work of Judith Herman, a Harvard psychiatrist, who has published one of the most important works available on trauma and its effects on the human brain. Her book is entitled: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.

You’re all familiar with the name Sigmund Freud. What you may not be familiar with, however, is how he first got noticed and how he first became famous.

About 100 years ago, there was a huge problem in Europe. It had to do with women – women who began acting in very strange and unpredictable and self-harming ways – ways that became so extreme that they had to be placed in jail-like premises.

These were women who were consistently doing things to themselves like pulling their hair out, attacking their own bodies, screaming uncontrollably, and so forth. They were diagnosed with what was called “hysteria” – which originally was a noun, but through the years has been transposed into an adjective, as in that “hysterical woman.”

The complicating factor was: No one knew what caused this. The scientists of that time couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

So, Sigmund Freud, who was just out of school at that time, and was very ambitious to make his mark, decided to do something truly radical: He went to the women and asked them what happened to them! Believe it or not, no one had done that before!

And, so, he did. After a long series of interviews, he then published his findings in a book that to this day remains a classic: Studies on Hysteria.

What do you think he discovered?

These women were all victims of horrible sexual abuse, rape, incest and domestic violence.

Now, remember: 100 years ago – and for centuries leading up to that time – men had total and complete control over their families. They could do as they wished with their wives and their children. Few, if any, laws existed to protect women and children.

When Freud published his findings, he expected to be viewed as something akin to a hero, a pathfinder.

Quite the contrary happened.

When other scientists – all male, of course – at that time heard of Freud’s findings, they were appalled and furious. They demeaned Freud in every way they could think of. His future seemed destroyed. Why? Because he was uncovering a male domination issue that had existed for thousands of years!

So, what did Freud do in response to this treatment by his fellow scientists?

He took his book off the market; denied every conclusion he had reached; and he never met with another female client after that.

One of the tragedies of this development was that the whole issue of trauma and its devastating effects on the human brain were pushed aside and hidden from public view.

Now, jump ahead some 70 years:

Soldiers are returning from the horrors of the Vietnam war. In response, they begin meeting in support groups in an attempt to talk through the terrible damage done to them.

At the same time, women, on their own, are beginning to meet in their own support groups, and for the first time ever beginning to name what happened to them while growing up – in many cases, precisely the same traumas that the women had named to Freud many years before: rape, incest, sexual abuse, domestic violence.

Journalists began to take notice of these meetings. What they reported was that, amazingly, the results from both the men who had been victimized by war and the women who had been victimized by men were hauntingly the same: hideous nightmares, panic attacks, re-enactment of traumas, ongoing depression, and a host of other symptoms.

Then the legal world began to take notice. And, finally, so did the world of psychiatry.

In 1980, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first named – a diagnosis that has become commonplace in our time, though still denied by many in positions of power.

Think of the tragedy of this discovery: Thousands of years of human history had passed before any of this was being named and treated!


Here’s the reality of what faces us right now in terms of mental illness.

In our present time, according to the latest data, some 350 million people suffer from clinical depression alone throughout the world!! This is a rise of almost 20% in the last decade, as people are now living longer.

“Depression is the single largest contributor to years lived with disability. So, it’s now the top cause of disability in the world.”

Depression is almost twice more common among women than men.

A further 250 million people suffer anxiety disorders, including phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some 80 percent of those stricken with mental illness are low – and middle-income people.

Three age groups are particularly vulnerable to depression: youth, pregnant or post-partum women, and the elderly.

Depression exists amongst some of the most famous people, as well. This includes many people we know and admire: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Bob Dylan, Robin Williams – to name just a few.

Bruce Springsteen, the famous rock and roll artist, speaks continuously throughout his recent autobiography, Born To Run, about his alcoholic father, his own anxiety attacks, his “paranoid delusions,” and about his ever-present depression. He even entitles one of his albums: Darkness on the Edge of Town.

In that album, Springsteen features one haunting tune that focuses on the tragedy of addiction: Racing In The Street – the story of a man who is so enamored of the rush and the thrill and the ecstasy of racing in the street that his marriage is ruined, he feels a deep sadness, but he goes right back to the racing.

Here’s what Springsteen says about himself:

“I was sliding back toward the chasm where rage, fear, distrust, insecurity and a family-patented misogyny made war with my better angels.”

How well put that phrase is! Mental illness is about a war taking place in the human brain.

Some of the great saints suffered from these oppressive mental diseases: Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who died at the early age of 24; Mother Theresa who left a diary that told of her many years lived in spiritual desolation, to name just a couple.

Some 44 million American adults are now living with psychiatric illnesses like clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and a host of others.

Then there is an entity we hear a lot about these days: personality disorders – a condition considered to be highly genetic and extraordinarily difficult to treat because it seemingly is hard-wired into a person’s brain. These disorders, like narcissism and anti-social personality disorder and borderline personality disorders – to name only a few – are maladaptive behavior patterns that are embedded in a person’s self-expression.  

And, as if all this were not enough, there’s also the deeply troubling world of addiction, a word meaning enslavement.

Over 16 million adults struggle with alcoholism alone – a number that does not include the millions more who suffer from gambling addiction, pornography addiction, and drug addiction.

Today, for example, our country is awash with the reality of an opioid epidemic of untold proportions.

Millions of Americans are addicted to opiates, including prescription meds like Oxycodone and Vicodin and Demerol and Dilaudid.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Prescription drugs are misused and abused more often than any other drug, except marijuana and alcohol.”

And then there’s Heroin: a white to dark brown powder often mixed with other substances. Heroin has become a major epidemic in America.

In fact, a friend of mine and a local Pharmacist, Tom Rickey, introduced me to this book: Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Allow me to quote one brief statement from this book: “If deaths were the measurement, this wave of opiate abuse is the worst drug-scourge to ever hit the country.”

In preparation for this presentation, I had the wonderful occasion of speaking with Dr. Rose, the physician who owns and operates the Rose Medical Association here in downtown Peoria, a treatment center focused on heroin and methamphetamine and other mood-altering substances.

He told me that Americans are now hooked on painkillers and/or heroin. In the Greater Peoria area, he estimates that some 30,000 people are abusing or have become addicted to painkillers or Heroin. He said to me: “People have no idea how rampant this epidemic is right here in Peoria.” In the state of Illinois, he said, twice as many people now die from heroin overdose as do those who die from auto accidents!


And here’s maybe the saddest piece of information of all:

All of this isn’t just an adult problem. Anxiety and depression in American high school kids are on the rise since 2012. This reality “cuts across all demographics – suburbs, urban and rural, those who are college-bound and those who aren’t,” according to a very recent report. That means they’re scared and they’re sad.

But, here’s the worst part of it all:

It isn’t just depression. It isn’t just anxiety disorders. It isn’t just alcoholism and a score of other addictions like heroin and painkillers that are real and vicious and even deadly.

Even more so is suicide.

The suicide rate in America is at the highest it’s been in 28 years. It is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34.  That’s how sad. That’s how scared these young people are!!!!

There is a suicide every 13 minutes in the United States. Suicides now outnumber homicides.

Worldwide some 800,000 people die from committing suicide each year – a horrifying figure.


Now, having shared all of this dark news, allow me, if you will, to return to the story of the Demoniac.

Here we’ll find there’s some good news, some news of liberation, some news of “untie him and let him go free,” as Jesus says about Lazarus who he brought forth from a tomb in the gospel of John.

The same Jesus who has just healed a leper, and who has just stilled the winds and has just calmed the seas —-

This same Jesus is about to do the same to the fury and the terror of the storms that rage inside the brain of the Madman, the Demoniac.

And just like the story where Jesus gets up in the boat and says: “Be still,” here again Jesus does a similar thing.

What does Jesus do?

He very quietly and tenderly and calmly turns to the man, looks directly at him, and speaks to him.

Now notice what Jesus doesn’t do:

He doesn’t shame. He doesn’t blame. He doesn’t accuse. He doesn’t question. He doesn’t interrogate in any way. He doesn’t demand anything of him. He doesn’t use some derogatory stereotype to describe him.

Instead, Jesus does two things: He asks the man his name – he asks him to name the demon, to name what’s oppressing him;

and then he simply presents his loving, accepting presence and, in doing so, demonstrates his profound sense of tenderness and love.

And the man is healed.

And Mark’s initial point in his gospel is made:

Jesus is the Lord of the universe and the Lord of the inner spirit of human beings and the Lord of infinite mercy and compassion.

He is the Lord of all.

Caesar – or any contemporary ruler – is not.

Now listen to how Mark ends his story of the Demoniac: “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him. But Jesus would not permit him, but told him instead: ‘Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his mercy has done for you.’ Then the man went off and began to proclaim … what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.” (Mk 5:18-20)

Again, they “had never seen anything like this!” Never!

I’d like to suggest that we – you and I – are the family that Jesus speaks of in this story. We’re the family that Jesus sends the Madman back to – not just then, but to this day.

We are the ones, in other words, to whom these people who are mentally ill and addicted, who are so tortured and so defeated and so alone – these are the very ones Jesus is sending to us – to you and me.

We are the ones the mentally ill and the addicted now come to to be recognized, to be touched by, to be talked to, to be held, to be comforted, to be lead slowly and lovingly into healing.

As Mark did some 2000 years ago, we are now to be the “gospel,” if you will – the “good news of great joy” to a world so immersed in darkness and despair.

But now, not just a book – however sacred the “gospel” is,  but we – “the people of the Book,” if you will – are the “gospel” in the world in which we live.

How do we accomplish that?


Allow me to make a few practical recommendations:

  1. Stop judging: There is so much shame surrounding mental illness and addiction, even to this day. Note that the word “shame” is different from the word “guilt.” Guilt refers to the feeling we get when we know we’ve done something wrong. Shame is the feeling of “I haven’t just done something wrong, I am wrong. I’m a bad person.” No one chooses a mental illness or an addiction. These disorders happen to them. Their issue now is not to wallow in the shame of “what a terrible person I am,” but how can I get the help I need to recover?”

That’s where we walk in the door – helping them to do like Jesus did: name what’s happening to them and assisting them in getting the help they need

  1. Stop the stigma, the negatives, and the stereotypes that we’ve developed over the years about mental illness and addiction – all they do is further demean and destroy people
  2. Stop looking down on them and start looking up to the Lord and saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” The reality is, as one psychiatrist put it, “We’re all a little bit crazy!” We’re all a little bit narcissistic and paranoid and scared and … you name it. It’s more a matter of degree than kind.
  3. Start educating ourselves to be better equipped to respond to the “war” that goes on in the brains of certain people.
  4. Start honoring and supporting the programs and the people who have dedicated their lives to imitating Jesus’ effort to heal, to include, to respect.
  5. Start supporting the local hospitals and treatment centers that are providing the best care possible for the mentally ill and the addicted. Understand better how deficient we are as a country in providing adequate care for those who are powerless to fend for themselves. Understand better that we do not have nearly enough counselors and psychologists and psychiatrists and addiction specialists to meet the enormous demand we face as a country.
  6. Support every effort to make sure insurance is available to people – especially those who are without funds. The tendency is always to leave out the poor and the mentally ill and the addicted. Please stand strong for maintaining advocacy for those who have little voice in the decisions as to who will be protected by insurance.


Why do all of this?

Because that’s what the Church is all about, as Pope Francis is trying to help us see. We are the “field hospital,” that sacred place where our care, our sharing of the great sacraments, our prayers and our guidance can help these people find a place of light in the midst of so much inner darkness, a place of joy in the midst of so much sadness, a place of peace in the midst of so much pain.

That’s what the Church is really all about – it’s about being a people who, as the artist sister of Fr. Tom Kelly puts it so beautifully:

“We’re all just walking each other home.”

What I believe strongly is that when we as a Church start doing just that – “walking each other home” – maybe, just maybe, people will once again begin saying about us what they did about Jesus in the gospel of Mark: “We’ve never seen anything like this.” Ever!



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